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Kyung-Wha Chung - violinist


A pioneer in the Asian classical music circuit, Kyung-Wha Chung's musical career began at the age of three. Her fame peaked in the seventies and eighties along with other famous violinists such as Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman. In her prime, she was well known for her interpretations of Romantic and Modern music. She is still quite actively performing, and expanding her repertoire to Baroque and Mozart in recent years.

Early Years

Kyung-Wha Chung was born to a very musical family. Her mother recognised her musical talent from a young age (she began to sing at the age of two). With her perfect pitch, Chung was a good singer, winning several small competitions. Following this success she was introduced to the piano, but the instrument bored her so much that she often fell asleep while practicing. However, the moment she first heard the sound of a violin, she was instantly mesmerized by its tone. With an amazing amount of focus, and surprising speed of learning for one so young, Kyung-Wha Chung began to play the violin from the age of seven. She was known as a child prodigy, and by the age of nine she was already playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. As time progressed she steadily won most of the famous music competitions in Korea. Chung, with her siblings, toured around the country, performing music both as soloist and as a part of an ensemble. As the children became more and more famous in Korea, Chung's mother felt that it was too small a country for her children to further their musical careers, and she decided to move to America. All of Chung's siblings played classical instruments and three of them became professional musicians. Her younger brother, Myung-Whun Chung is a conductor and a pianist who won the second prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition against Andrei Gavrilov. Her older sister, Myung-Wha Chung, who plays cello and studied under great Gregor Piatigorsky, has won many competitions (among them, the Geneva Competition) and currently teaches at the Korean National University of Arts in Seoul.


At age thirteen she arrived in the United States. However, Chung's family found that moving to America was not an easy undertaking. With the help of Myung-Soh, her older flutist sister who was studying at Juilliard School, Chung received an invitation to audition for Pre-College division of Juilliard. The audition was successful, and Chung was awarded a full scholarship to Juilliard with the possibility of studying under the renowned pedagogue Ivan Galamian.


Studying in Juilliard was not easy. The language barrier was huge and being a part of a racial minority group meant that Chung often felt an outsider. She was one of the best child violinists in Korea, but at Juilliard, competing against some of the best young prodigies in the world, Chung found that her talent was less developed than others with more advantages. She was alleged to be surprised that Itzhak Perlman, another protégé of Galamian, already had some 40 repertoires then.

Faced with these challenges she was determined to distinguish herself, working so hard that her family began to fear for her health. Galamian’s training was very strict, renowned for causing students to leave the school. However, for Chung's work-ethic, it seemed that his technique was exactly what she needed. Her playing matured considerably during this time with the help of her teacher. Galamian, however, was known to be prejudiced against female violinists. Although he knew of her talent, he thought she could go only so far as a professional violinist. He always warned her not to marry. This kind of prejudice only caused her to practice more. She wanted to prove to him and everyone that she could do both; marry and have a family, and also have a successful career. Subsequently, she did both.


Chung always wished to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition, but because of the cold war and the tense relationship between the Soviet Union and South Korea, she could not participate. So instead in 1967, she decided to participate in the Edgar Leventritt Competition, a prestigious competition in which Itzhak Perlman had won first prize. However, many around her tried to dissuade her from participating. Her manager thought that if she did not win, it would be very detrimental to her career.

Her teacher Ivan Galamian was also not in favor of this because Pinchas Zukerman, another of his students, was participating in the same competition. Because he was being supported by the famous and very powerful Isaac Stern, Zukerman seemed to have better chance of winning the competition. But to boost her confidence, Chung's determined mother sold the family house in Korea to buy her a Stradivarius violin.

In the final stage of the competition, the judges found it impossible to decide a winner between Chung and Zukerman, and Isaac Stern demanded that they play again. Yet even after the second time, the judges still could not decide, and finally for the first time in the history of the Leventritt competition, it declared two winners; both Chung and Zukerman for first place.

Kyung-Wha had concerts with major American orchestras such as Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, and substituted for Nathan Milstein for his White House Gala when he became indisposed. However, her career was still not blossoming. Her chance came in 1970, when Itzhak Perlman could not come to London for his concert with London Symphony Orchestra (his wife was giving birth to their child), and Chung was asked to step in at the last minute. The orchestra was initially very hostile to Chung, whom they considered an “amateur". The orchestra started playing the Mendelssohn Violin concerto during the rehearsal, although Chung had been told that she would be playing Tchaikovsky for the concert. However, she played the Mendelssohn concerto perfectly, winning the respect of the orchestra. The rehearsal went smoothly afterwards, and the concert was a huge success.

The success in London meant a lot to her career; she had many engagements in England and she subsequently had an exclusive recording deal with Decca/London. Her debut album with Andre Previn and LSO, which coupled Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos, brought her to the international stage.

It was in Europe that Chung then met her second great teacher, the well-known violinist Joseph Szigeti. Szigeti not only refined her violin skill, but also concentrated on expanding her understanding of music and art. He encouraged her to read books and go to galleries, and Chung later said at an interview that this experience had taught her how a visual medium of artistic expression, such as a painting, might be transformed into musical language.

Since then she has performed around the world, most of the time to critical acclaim. She has worked with most of the major orchestras including Berlin Philharmonic,[1] Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra,[1] Philadelphia Orchestra,[1] Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra.[1] She has worked with many famous conductors such as Georg Solti, Andre Previn,[1] Simon Rattle,[1] Claudio Abbado, Charles Dutoit and Riccardo Muti. She has also worked with many celebrated pianists such as Radu Lupu, Krystian Zimerman, Peter Frankl, Stephen Kovacevich and her younger brother Myung-Whun Chung. She plays also in the Chung Trio, with her brother and her older sister, Myung-Wha Chung. Her repertoire includes most of the famous concertos ranging from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Berg, and she has recorded several important sonatas such as the Brahms violin sonatas, Frank & Debussy sonatas, and Respighi & Strauss sonatas (with Krystian Zimerman, a recording which earned her Gramophone Award for Best Chamber Recording). Her interpretations are known to be very passionate but at the same time well structured and with a lot of tonal variations. Her early recordings show the astonishing degree of perfectionism which Chung pursued.

In 1997, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her international debut at Barbican Center in London and her hometown, Seoul. Her most recent recordings include Vivaldi’s Four Seasons[1] (which was selected as Gramophone’s editorial choice) and Brahms violin concerto with Vienna Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.

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